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Sunday hockey notes

With help from new boss Bill Zito, Florida Panthers have clawed their way to the top

Among the Florida Panthers' skilled additions is center Sam Bennett.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The sun’s shining in Sunrise for the first time in a very long while, much to the credit of Bill Zito, the former player agent and ex-Blue Jackets assistant general manager hired by the Panthers only 15 months ago to replace Dale Tallon as boss.

Now two months into the 2021-22 season, the other NHL team in Florida, the one without back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, has proven it’s no fluke. As the weekend approached, the distant sons of the Miami Rat Pack were lodged atop the league in points percentage (.769) and had lost only four times in regulation — tied with the Capitals for best in show.

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“Jarmo had a saying in Columbus,” said Zito, referring to his ex-boss, Jarmo Kekalainen, the former Bruins winger who is the longtime GM of the Blue Jackets, “we value character as a skill.”

Obviously, it takes more than catchy mantras to build a roster and deliver the goods. Zito has proven to be a quick-makeover artist through some masterful roster augmentation, and in part because the Panthers had a number of tantalizing pieces already put in place by Tallon.

The club Zito inherited had franchise defenseman Aaron Ekblad on the job, along with No. 1 goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the latter clipped off the Blue Jackets’ roster as a free agent by Tallon. Up front, they had elite center Aleksander Barkov and high-impact winger Jonathan Huberdeau, their leading scorer the last two-plus seasons. Not exactly the beggars scraps left behind by, say, an expansion franchise of the 1970s.

Nonetheless, the Panthers weren’t winning. They were barely treading water. They were the soft touches of the Southeast.

Zito has reversed all of that by building on that talented core via a series of astute trades and free agent signings, the first of which was the swap that sent ex-Boston College defenseman Mike Matheson to the Penguins for right winger Patric Hornqvist. It was Step 1 in adding essential experience, Hornqvist arriving as a two-time Cup winner in Pittsburgh who brought stabilizing moxie and heft to the forwards.

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Bill Zito (left) has turned the Panthers into a contender by building around young talent like center Aleksander Barkov (right).Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Another key move, though hardly headline-making at the time, was the 2020 free agent signing (three years, $7.5 million) of blue liner Radko Gudas, the Czech tough guy who had just spent a year with the Capitals after four less-than-distinctive seasons with the Flyers.

“A huge addition for us,” noted Zito, “because of his compete, his professionalism, his character, his zeal for the game, his attention to the team. I don’t think people talk about his leadership skills. I don’t think even he sees them as skills. It’s just what he is … loves the game of hockey, loves the team, wants to play and play hard. A great teammate and leader and just revered by the room.”

Zito, among other machinations, dealt for centers Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart, two more skilled additions. It’s now a club with an expanded talent core, solid depth, perhaps only short a top-four defenseman from being able to compete legitimately for the Cup.

“The guys in the room have advanced the ball — not me,” said Zito, a former Yale winger who played in New Haven under Tim Taylor. “It truly is them.”

Meanwhile, rarely, if ever, has there been a time with such turnover in front offices across the league. The latest big dismissal was Jim Benning, once assistant GM to Peter Chiarelli in Boston, who was shown the door last weekend in Vancouver. His Canucks were on another fast track to a postseason DNQ. Both Benning and coach Travis Green were canned.

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On the GM side of things, Benning joined Stan Bowman (Blackhawks), Bob Murray (Ducks), and Marc Bergevin (Canadiens) on the unemployment ranks. All have been fired, or forced to resign, since the start of the season.

Green, who had a short playing stint with the Bruins in the Mike Sullivan era, joined fellow coaches Jeremy Colliton (Blackhawks), Joel Quenneville (Panthers), and Alain Vigneault (Flyers) in the ex-bench boss fraternity.

The not-so-grand total: four GMs and four coaches out of work and we haven’t even reached the holiday break. More to come, for sure.

Meanwhile, Jeff Gorton, the interim GM in Boston prior to Chiarelli being hired, two weeks ago was hired as the man to rehab the Habs. As reported early last week, first by Mathias Brunet of La Presse, it appears Gorton will hire local agent Kent Hughes as his French-speaking GM. Hughes, agent for Patrice Bergeron, grew up in Montreal and played four seasons at Middlebury College (Class of ‘92).

New Vancouver Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau arrives for an NHL hockey news conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)JONATHAN HAYWARD/Associated Press

On Thursday, the Canucks replaced Benning with Jim Rutherford, the senior executive who shocked the Penguins by resigning as their boss in January. For now, Rutherford is both team president and GM in Vancouver, but he’ll likely hand off much, if not all, of the GM role to someone younger when he gets settled. Rutherford, an ex-goalie with the long-ago Red Wings, will be 73 in February.

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Kyle Davidson (GM) and Derek King (GM) remain the interim job holders in Chicago. Blackhawks ownership doesn’t sound in a rush to commit long term. In Anaheim, Murray resigned as GM and entered rehab for alcoholism after being reported to the league for his alleged abusive management style. Assistant Jeff Solomon, a recent Murray hire from the Kings, quickly was promoted to the top job.

The well-traveled Bruce Boudreau, last booted from behind the Wild bench, took over Green’s job in Vancouver, less than a week before Rutherford was hired (not standard practice, but such is the way of things with the Canucks).

The Canucks have shown instant life in starting 3-0-0 under Boudreau, who, like Bruce Cassidy in Boston, entered the door preaching fast pace as a path to success. Boudreau also looks committed to playing the daylights out of dazzling blue liner Quinn Hughes, who averaged 27:22 of ice time in his first two games (both wins) playing for the new boss.

Vigneault was the biggest name among the coaches to get whacked. He was dismissed along with assistant Michel Therrien, leaving it to interim Mike Yeo to try to right a franchise that GM Chuck Fletcher was charged with making right after Ron Hextall’s four-plus years on the stick.

As the weekend approached, the Flyers had won nine of 25 games, their worst win rate since going a moribund 22-48-12 in 2006-07, which was Paul Holmgren’s first year as GM after taking over for Bobby Clarke in late October of that season.

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Meanwhile, back in Florida, where Quenneville hastily resigned as coach because of the fallout for his part in the Blackhawks’ mess, Andrew Brunette was promoted and still holds the bench job. The Panthers were 7-0-0 when he took over and were 10-4-4 (.667) in his first 18 games prior to weekend play. With the sun still shining in Sunrise, no reason to change a thing.

HITS KEEP ON COMING

These smackdowns are OK by the rules

The Rangers' Jacob Trouba (left) has been in the headlines for some big hits this week.Bruce Bennett/Getty

Hard for any Bruins watcher to see Rangers blue liner Jacob Trouba clobber the Blackhawks’ Jujhar Khaira Tuesday night and not dial back the memory machine to the image of Aaron Rome blowing up Nathan Horton in Game 3 of the 2011 Cup Final.

Like Horton, Jujhar ended up flat on his back, eyes pointed toward the United Center ceiling, and not moving a stitch after the steamrolling Trouba drove a shoulder under his chin.

The image of the blindsided Horton was even scarier, the hulking right winger flat on his back inside the offensive blue line, his left arm extended, rigid, and also pointed north. Rome planted him with a shoulder-to-head pop similar to Trouba’s hit.

If you can stomach it, call up the Horton hit on the Internet. His pass to Milan Lucic on left wing was maybe 15 feet and Rome connected to his head after the puck was already on Lucic’s stick blade. The hit was late. It was gruesome. Thankfully, Rome was sent off for the night and banished for the remainder of the series. Good riddance.

Trouba, who dealt Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon a near-identical smackdown the next night, was not penalized for his hit — be it to Khaira or MacKinnon. He caught both unsuspecting lads with their head down and, true to hockey’s code, all’s fair when blowing up a guy with his head down, provided the hit isn’t late or from the blind side.

By the rulebook, Trouba did nothing wrong. He can bury guys like that every night with impunity, and keep doing it until A. He gets hurt dishing out one of those hits; B. He gets sent to Palookaville when caught with his head down; or C: Someone goes all Original Six and beats the bejeezus out of him.

Of course, the chance that it’s “C” in today’s hockey is about the same as the NHL going back to wooden sticks, leather boots, and organ music. Forget it. The only realistic chance of seeing “C” would be if Trouba similarly blows up one of the Capitals not named Tom Wilson, prompting Wilson to try to square it. Feel free to change the channel now. Not happening.

The confounding gray area here is this: Trouba did nothing wrong, which is not to say what he did is right. The rulebook still has enough room in it for such predatory hits, as long as the victim’s head is not discerned to be the perpetrator’s principle point of contact. Not all roadkill is the same.

As stomach-turning as that may be, sad to say, it is the caveat emptor that comes with professional contact sport. In both cases, Trouba didn’t have to go for kill shots, but they were A-OK as defined by the rules. He went for it. No price to pay on his end. Further legislation would thin out the contact, which in turn would dial down the game’s entertainment factor.

It appears MacKinnon came out of it none the worse for wear. He left the ice under his own power for a short break and came back to finish the game. Khaira had to be stretchered off, and underwent extensive neuro testing before being released from the hospital. It will be a while before he comes back to the Blackhawks’ lineup.

In the not-so-small blessings department, it could have been far worse for Khaira. Check the video. The back of his head smashed heavily onto the ice upon his backward crash landing, bounced, and hit again. If not for that helmet, the damage could have been devastating, perhaps fatal. Yet all of it legal under the rulebook.

ETC.

Eichel, Tuch still a ways away

Jack Eichel is not expected to join the Vegas Golden Knights soon after undergoing neck surgery.Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

The Golden Knights will be in town Tuesday night for their annual Causeway visit, but Jack Eichel, of the North Chelmsford Eichels, remains at least a couple of months away from joining their lineup.

Finally dealt out of Buffalo per his request, the 25-year-old Eichel quickly underwent surgery last month to replace a disk in his neck and in recent days was spotted skating in North Carolina as part of his rehab training. Eichel played in only 21 games last season with the Sabres, then shut it down because of neck pain, and ultimately forced the trade that netted the Sabres Alex Tuch, minor leaguer Peyton Krebs, and two draft picks (Rounds 1, 2).

Like Eichel, Tuch, a former BC standout, has yet to play with his new team. He had offseason shoulder surgery and first jumped on the ice for a Sabres practice just after Thanksgiving.

“It’s going to be fun when I first put on that jersey to play my first game, that’s for sure,” Tuch said following the first workout.

Barring setbacks, a realistic return date for Tuch, originally a Wild draft pick (No. 18, 2014), would be early January. Eichel most likely won’t join the Knights until after the February Olympic break, with 32 games still to play in the regular season.

Tuch, a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound left winger, was born in Syracuse and sounds genuinely happy to be back in western New York. Hard to find those guys these days.

Buffalo, after a decent start, is again pointed directly toward playoff DNQ land of the lost. Tuch will upgrade the roster, but the challenge will be for GM Kevyn Adams to add pieces around him quickly in hopes that he, too, doesn’t fall into the emotional abyss of suiting up for the Sabres. Otherwise, Tuch becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2026 and will be free to follow the long line of Sabres out of town.

Loose pucks

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reaffirmed the league's commitment to releasing players for the Beijing Olympics.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday, during a break in the Board of Governors meeting, that the league intends to honor its commitment to release players for the Beijing Olympics. But he also underscored it’s up to the players to make the final call. Given that COVID-19 again is on the uptick, and Games organizers plan to restrict athlete mobility significantly because of the virus, don’t be surprised if a number of NHLers, especially veterans, opt for extended time off in February … The Bruins, by the way, play the Kraken here on Feb. 1, then don’t suit up again until Feb. 24 in Seattle, the start of an extended road swing that will keep them out of the Garden until March 7 (Kings) … In the four games prior to their matchup Saturday night in Calgary, the Bruins’ only multiple goal scorer was, yep, Jake DeBrusk, who potted power-play strikes in Nashville and Edmonton. Awkward. Shake ‘n’ Jake still wants outta here, and GM Don Sweeney has needs for a No. 2 center and someone, either up front or in back, who can log productive minutes and provide some moxie and growl. In terms of protecting an asset, it really makes no sense to keep DeBrusk in the lineup. But even with limited ice time, he has shown some pop, which makes it hard to yank him from the lineup … Ex-Bruin Riley Nash, doing a whole lot of nothing in Winnipeg (0-0—0, 15 games), was plucked off waivers Tuesday by the back-to-back-Cup-winning Lightning. Nash likely won’t produce on the scoreboard, but he is a valued righthanded center and can help support a bottom six stretched thin with the departures of Yanni Gourde (claimed in expansion draft by Kraken), Barclay Goodrow (trade to Rangers), and Tyler Johnson (trade to Blackhawks) … This late update from the Empire Hotel: All those guys who put a little money down on the Maple Leafs (18-8-2 going into weekend action) are feeling pretty good about themselves this morning. And why not? They’ve been glued to that damn hockey game since 1967.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com.